Latex Allergy or Sensitivity: What’s the Difference?

Gloves are an integral part of any dental procedure.  Latex, a milky substance collected from the rubber tree, has long been the healthcare industry’s material of choice for glove production.  Over the past decade, however, there has been an increase in reports of latex allergies among those exposed to frequent latex glove use.

Generally, people attribute any latex glove-related reaction as an “allergy,” but there are actually two types of latex reactions:  True latex allergy (Type I Hypersensitivity) and a sensitivity known as allergic contact dermatitis (Type IV Hypersensitivity).  Understanding the differences between the two is critical.

True latex allergy is a reaction to the proteins in natural rubber latex.  Reactions may include erythema, hives, or in severe cases, anaphylaxis.  Patients and staff with true latex allergies require gloves made of products such as nitrile and vinyl.

Conversely, allergic contact dermatitis is a reaction to the chemical additives used in the manufacturing of latex gloves.  Symptoms take several hours to develop, and include swelling, redness, itching and blistering/cracking of the skin.  Patients and staff with allergic contact dermatitis are limited to the use of vinyl gloves alone, as nitrile gloves contain the same chemical additives found in latex gloves.